Tuesday, January 20, 2009

An Album That Shouldn’t Be Left Behind: How to Evaluate an ‘Atomic Bomb’

The hype machine is in full effect for U2’s new album, “No Line on the Horizon” (due March 3—love that title!), with numerous magazine features and what not. The intensity went up a few notches Monday, when the album’s lead single, “Get on Your Boots,” hit the Internet (though not as exciting on first listen as “Vertigo” was in 2004, “GOYB” gets better with each play).

The PR onslaught of a new U2 release brings all sorts of hyperventilating and hyperbole by media and fans alike; I’m no less susceptible to this than others, so I thought it would be worthwhile to reexamine the band’s most recent album, 2004’s “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,” to find a little perspective in the this-is-the-best-U2-album-ever hysteria that is about to descend upon the world.
With the new album, I predict some revisionist history will occur regarding the band’s previous work this decade, especially the last album. While “Atomic Bomb” received, in general, good to great reviews from the press, somewhere along the line it became cool for a vocal portion of the U2 fan community to bash the living crap out of the record. I’m thinking with “No Line on the Horizon,” there’s going to be a lot of stuff about getting away from the “old U2,” or the “tentative” and “safe” tendencies of the previous two albums, like they weren’t any good or something.

Overall, I still stand by my A- review of the album; I would certainly listen to arguments to drop it maybe to the B range, but I think it’s otherwise unfairly vilified by a vocal faction of the U2 community. Though its low points have become harder to overlook, its great points still soar just as high for me today as they did originally and more than make up for a few lackluster tracks. The fact that U2 can still write songs that live up to their own legacy is quite a feat, indeed.

Here’s a track-by-track look:

So what if it was on an (undeniably cool, iconic) iPod commercial? This remains one of the band’s most ferocious tracks of their entire career. Go back and listen again for when Edge explodes back into the song after the bridge. The lyrics are underappreciated, as well, as Bono examines the struggle between heart and head, and maintaining faith in an age that seeks to make the word meaningless. This 21st century can indeed make you feel dizzy, and “Vertigo” starts a conversation about faith and living in this world of ours that runs through the entire record.

“Miracle Drug”
From the very first time I heard it, “Miracle Drug” has always sounded like a “Beautiful Day” knockoff. Plodding along, it’s U2 trying to be U2, which is never a good thing. Bono’s lyrics are weak, his delivery even weaker; his slow cadence throughout just drags the entire thing down. It’s the first of several state-of-the-world songs on this album that fall rather flat.

“Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own”
The hands-down high point of the record, this track still makes me just stop and listen. It demands attention, refusing to be relegated to background music. The “siiiiiing” moment may seem like not as big a deal now, but it’s easy to forget that prior to “Atomic Bomb,” Bono’s voice had been slipping dangerously away into ragged nothingness. He hadn’t sounded this strong and clear in a decade, and “Sometimes” is one of Bono’s best-ever performances, as both a writer and a singer.

“Love and Peace or Else”
Boy, Bono was all over the place early on in this CD. Here a solid, sinewy rocker is wasted on his vapid lyrics. The millennia-long conflict in the Middle East is just a bit too complicated for a five-minute rock song.

“City of Blinding Lights”
As opposed to “Miracle Drug,” this is epic U2 at its best, an absolute freight train of a song. The chorus, especially, is as roof-rocking as the band’s ever been. And as is the case throughout the album, Bono’s lyrics come much easier and more natural when he’s writing about his own experiences, rather than addressing global issues. “City of Blinding Lights” encapsulates the overall theme or the record, as here he refers back to the issues addressed first in “Vertigo” and again in “All Because of You,” with themes of lost ideals and innocence, his head distracting him from a heart open to God, and God striving to drag him back from the vortex of this world and return to a place of childlike faith. A tremendous song.

“All Because of You”
The second case on “Atomic Bomb” where a loose, easy rock song belies the intensity and insightfulness of the lyrics. This homage to The Who packs a spiritual punch equal to a Pete Townshend guitar squall, as Bono continues his career-long conversation with the Almighty. Go back and read the words; they’re really quite brilliant, right down to the “I am” line, which could be either Bono addressing the great “I Am,” or saying “I am” what I am thanks to you, Lord. After all this global icon and has seen and done, “All Because of You” serves as a powerful reaffirmation of his faith—again, hidden inside a blistering “throwaway” rock and roll song.

“A Man and a Woman”
Certainly the most lyrically dense track on the album, this one’s a little tough to get my arms around. I interpret it as another reaffirmation from Bono, this time to his wife, promising he would never sacrifice the true love they share for the fleeting pleasures available to the world’s biggest rock star. A nice, mature change of pace leading into the second half of the record.

“Crumbs from Your Table”
One of The Edge’s best riffs of the album goes by the wayside here as Bono once again goes on the global warpath. I’ve always read this as Bono chastising America—or at least all wealthy nations—for not doing enough to help the poor. Save the preaching for the podium. Still, it’s really solid otherwise—Chiming Guitar Edge in fine form, familiar but not a rehash.

“One Step Closer”
If a track would’ve been trimmed off “Atomic Bomb,” this should have been the one. Not great, not bad, just rather blah on all fronts. How this surefire B-side made the cut and “Mercy” did not is beyond me.

“Original of the Species”
Now we’re talking. “Original of the Species” is the bright spot of the second half of “Atomic Bomb,” a beautiful, soaring, sweeping pop song about the wonders of parenthood. Bono returns to the themes of authenticity and truth, found first in “City of Blinding Lights,” as he speaks as a father to a child.

There’s a good song here, but it’s buried beneath layers of cheesy, ham-fisted production. The stripped-back acoustic version of this song U2 played on tour was far superior. A kneeling motif runs throughout “Atomic Bomb,” and though Bono doesn’t actually use the word here, this song is all about kneeling before God in prayer—“Take this heart/And make it break,” he says. Too bad the strong lyrics were robbed of their power in the studio.


One of the most interesting things I’ve discovered as part of my “Albums of the Aughts” project is that despite dominating much of my musical life for the past decade, U2 failed to record one of my 10 favorite albums in that span (that list is still coming, by the way!). Cull the best of “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” and “How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,” and you have a collection of tremendous songs that I cherish. But the band for whatever reason didn’t have enough umph to put together enough of those tracks on one release and deliver a truly classic album. Maybe that’s asking too much of a group of soon-to-be 50-somethings trying to hold their place at the top of a young man’s game.

That’s kinda the point, though, isn’t it? How many other bands at this stage in their respective careers are still relevant to the culture at large, to multiple generations, and expected to produce classic albums? The fact that U2 remains essential pop culture today is as impressive as anything they’ve ever done. Only a few bands in the history of rock and roll have been able to produce a record of the quality of “The Joshua Tree”; even fewer have followed it up with something like “Achtung Baby.” If U2’s output from this decade hasn't quite reached those peaks, I can live with that. They’ve done more than enough to make us believe—or hope, anyway—that maybe they can find that magic again with “No Line on the Horizon.”

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